(“Tender Filling” ©2008 Angel Burns)
This was a realization that first came to me through my acting training, and was further reinforced through years of involvement with Hospice and hospitals (psych wards, geriatrics, rehab centers, shelters). I often encounter someone sharing a tear, a hurt feeling, perhaps an anxiety, a sheepish embarrassment. Most of us, especially artists, identify as “sensitive,” at least inside. And yet, everywhere I share the idea of the title here, people are incredulous. Apologetic.
It is true. Sensitive does not have to mean fragile. It CAN, and plenty make it an excuse, but don’t give in to that. Sensitivity is a strength!
Sensitive means ALERT and awake– like a wild animal looking for an opportunity to pounce– or a small squirrel taking cues when to run. It can both protect you and propel you toward your goals. You won’t miss things, good or bad. You’ll have more chances!
Sensitive means INTELLIGENT. You are able to notice detail and take it in emotionally. That gets your attention and allows you to understand more deeply the reality around you. The information and insight gives you a big-picture, broader view. From there you can reach out, strategize, or even decide not to take something so personally. It is empowering.
On the positive side, an overlooked aspect of sensitivity is that you will notice the good things too: unspoken affection, subtle clues of appreciation, when someone looks you directly in the eye and is truly aware of you. Eat that like a chocolate…that’s a gift!
Sensitive also means, you’re a FEELER. That is natural. As a “big antenna” or a “giant nerve ending, ” it can hurt. It should. You are alive and able to cleanse yourself through facing and acknowledging the pain. I heard Gary Zukav on Oprah once, asked what to do in times of crisis or loss. He said to ask and pray, “oh please God, let me feel.”
This was a rather shocking answer, as the request was not “take it away” or “help me feel better now.” That’s because, as the saying goes, “it will stay in your face until you handle it with grace.” Pain ignored is not gone. Sublimated suffering can turn into other things: fat (i.e. over-indulgence in anything, hence addictions), physical ills, emotional “numbness,” confusion, a changed outlook, depression, etc. That is draining. Expression is cleansing. Be it physical through tears and exertion, sound (yelling, crying), simply talking about it, writing/journaling, or creatively (painting, scribbling, sand castles), it’s important to “get it out!” But feeling– there’s the sensitivity advantage– that has to come first.
Did you know that brain damage (affecting the prefrontal cortex), that reduces such emotional sensitivity, is highly detrimental to function? That those impaired individuals can’t make decisions, hold relationships, experience the highs much either…and don’t know what they’re missing? Believe me, you wouldn’t want a more robotic, “stoic” life.
Sensitivity is an asset, even when it points to something painful.
I always tell my friends, if something is bothering you, be it a stone in your shoe or the loss of a loved one, here’s how to think about it:
1. CHANGE IT. Can you? Perhaps in the case of a death, you can’t. Then acceptance would be the first step (much like the famous Serenity poem). But for most things, we rationalize why we can’t change it. We tend to limit ourselves to a handful of palatable choices. There are always more! Consider widely and then take ACTION. Change can happen “on a dime,” quicker than you can imagine. If you change, you could be instantly FREE!
2. EXPRESS IT. Find a place to put all the feelings connected to your issue. Give yourself the opportunity to cry, laugh, talk, move, share, or simply pound pillows. Don’t deny or rationalize. Use the energy– and if you’re pouring it into a creative outlet, let it be as close to the moment of first feeling it as possible. Others will get it. And maybe art will be born from there…saving you and those that relate. Art is what moves us.
3. Lastly, if you weren’t able to change or express your pain, or even if you are… soothe your tired sensitivity and your soul with SERVICE. Help someone else. Reach out and give in large doses. You decide where, how and how much. Could be simply listening to a neighbor, could be volunteering for a cause. Just get out there and roll up your outward-focused sleeves. Put aside what you’re focusing on and consider wholly another’s situation. Because your acute sensitivity has blessed you now with understanding. Your experience is likely shared by someone else, perhaps feeling bewildered and alone. Helping another can be cleansing as well, and you may be surprised how gifted you feel in giving. Here is a way to aid yourself (and perhaps return to steps 1 and 2).
This is why my motto is “look IN, not AT.” Whether referring to ourselves, another’s eyes, or an issue– peering deeper and directly will get to the answers. And your sensitivity will lead the way.
You are stronger than you know.
You are less alone than you may believe.
And bless you, you are sensitive: soft, childlike, and curiously reactive inside.
Thank your lucky stars.
Sensitive can be the furthest thing from fragile indeed. There is no need to break.